Why Johnny Canít Breathe

Sick kids, wheezing teachers, baffled administrators: Minneapolis schools encounter trouble in the air

On December 9, EH&S staffers conducted a series of tests at Edison, checking carbon dioxide, temperature, humidity, and carbon monoxide levels in 14 areas of the school. Most of the values seemed normal, their report noted. But the document also identified a series of problems, from sawdust in the wood shop to faulty ventilation systems and ceiling tiles showing stains (a sign of persistent moisture, which can lead to microbial growth).

In retrospect, district environmental health specialist Lee Setter says, it appears that ventilation was the most serious problem: The fan serving the entire west side of the building had been turned off for asbestos abatement in the 1980s. He ordered it repaired. "And Edison has been a much happier place since," he beams.

Budd confirms that air quality in the building has improved. But what really made staffers happy, she says, was the change they perceived in the attitude of school district officials: "Now when we call, we're being treated with respect," she says. "It's not, 'You crazy lady.' Instead it's, 'What do you smell?'"

Brian Stauffer


Dr. Malcolm Blumenthal, director of the Asthma and Allergy program at the University of Minnesota, has seen the pattern before. Workers complain that their building makes them sick. Managers can't find a cause. "It's very easy to blame things on your emotions," says Blumenthal. "People come in all the time who were told, 'It's all in your head.'"

Still, he says, over the past decade indoor-air quality has come to be recognized as "a major, major issue." The change was prompted in part by the skyrocketing rates of asthma and allergic reactions to irritants like mold and dust. Nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Health, the incidence of asthma in children rose more than 70 percent between 1984 and 1992; asthma and allergies were found to be the top reasons for both students and teachers missing school. In Minnesota, according to the state's Department of Children, Families and Learning, 5 percent of students need "asthma emergency kits" that contain inhalers and medication, and 30 percent of students and school staffers have allergies.

What's tricky, says Blumenthal, is figuring out what exactly causes a specific health problem. Air-quality-related symptoms, he notes, are generally vague: headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness. "If people are working in one place five days a week, eight hours a day, it's likely that any condition they have will crop up there," he explains. "But is it due to the workplace environment? You can't say that automatically--that would be like saying, 'I've got a headache; I'm breathing oxygen; so blame it on oxygen.'"

Lee Setter, the Minneapolis schools' environmental health specialist, concurs. "A teacher will say, 'I only get a headache in school,'" he posits. "It could be indoor-air quality. Or it could be the stress of teaching a classroom of 29 eighth-grade kids."

Sherri Rutman, chair of an environmental health committee formed by the local teachers' union two years ago, says teachers often ask themselves the same question. "You're sick, and you try to think of things that could be the problem," she says. "If you jump right away to something in your classroom, you think, 'How could that be?' A headache could be this, nausea could be that. Often it's not the whole building, just one room or a sector, or it's not all the people, just a few who maybe have existing conditions that make them more sensitive. It gets really sticky."

Rutman can remember talk about air-quality problems in the schools going back almost a decade. But organized efforts to deal with the problem didn't begin until two years ago, she says, when the union negotiated a new clause in its contract with the district. It acknowledges that "air quality, lighting, noise level and other environmental factors may greatly impact the performance of some students and staff in a school or other work location," and sets out a formal complaint process.

While that may sound like a relatively minor change, Rutman reports that the move has attracted national attention. "When I go to seminars in Washington, people tell me that this is monumental," she says. "People are concerned about these issues, but if they have a complaint and no system to follow up, it often just gets passed off."

According to Rutman, district officials have been cooperative so far, scheduling regular meetings with committee members and working with local consulting firms to create a set of school air-quality guidelines. Still, she says, the issue remains "a can of worms, and people are afraid that if we start opening the can, the worms are going to jump out all over. It's easier to turn their heads and say to the people who are experiencing it: 'You are crazy.'"


One thing those officials might be worried about is money--and rightly so, says Bartlett (Bake) Baker, an architect with Minneapolis-based Hammel, Green and Abrahamson who specializes in school design. It's relatively simple to ensure good air quality in a new building, Baker explains. "But when you're working with existing schools, costs are extremely high. You tear out ceilings and floors, you expand ductwork. It's very pricey, very time-consuming, and often very disruptive."

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